A Great Yes to Love
After ambling about the kitchen, 17-month-old Stella climbed into the empty laundry basket on the floor. I paused from dish duty to make her an offer. "Spin?" I asked, while stooping down to twirl her about in the basket. The joy on her face was clear when she came full circle. "Sphin!" she exclaimed, demonstrating her (near) acquisition of this delightful new word. Around I sent her. "Sphin," she said through her smile. "Yes, spin!" I replied, and around she went again. Each time I waited for her request, eager to please this little daughter of mine. It seemed to me that some of her joy in spinning must come from the eagerness and delight I took in fulfilling her simple desire. This, I think, is a glimmer of what love looks like at the heart of the Trinity.
Within the Trinity, Jesus' delighted and unreserved response — his "Yes" — testifies to the generosity of the Father, who withholds nothing from his only begotten Son. "My food is to do the will of the one who sent me," Jesus said (Jn 4:34). He did not say "duty" or "command," but "food." He hungers for the Father's will, delights in it, is sustained by it.
There is much to be learned in the unhesitating "Yes" that abounds in God's inner life. What is pitiable about us poor, fallen human beings is that we are so afraid we will be impoverished by our own "Yes" to God — or any authentic "Yes" to another person — that we instead become creatures of "Maybe" or simply of "No." The other becomes someone to be feared, and so we give ourselves away, but by fractions, so that no one will possess the whole of us. Instead of the vowed, exclusive and permanent relationship of marriage, our culture offers the temporary or trial arrangement of shared bodies and shared space — and it is understood that when attraction wavers or emotions fail, we have no obligation to stay. Instead of cooperating with God's vision for our families, we negotiate the terms. So this fear traces and retraces the pattern of the Fall on God's original plan for our lives.
It is with this plan in mind that Pope Benedict XVI addressed the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family on the occasion of the Institute's 30th anniversary May 13. Echoing the thought of Blessed John Paul II, Pope Benedict explained that, "the Fall is not the last word on the body in salvation history." Rather, the "original language" of the body is preserved in the family — "the place where the theology of the body and the theology of love are interwoven."
GROWING IN VIRTUE
Before I was married, my own vision of marriage was overwhelmed by a darkly grim sense of duty. The overture to the drama was simply, "Make it work, make it work." To me, marriage seemed to be a heavy yoke of meeting responsibilities. Only when I met the one God prepared to be my husband did that veil of grim duty lift. My future husband made me laugh. He listened. We prayed and studied and danced, and our love became more gift than duty. Our relationship, engagement and marriage brought more in the way of peace than anxiety.
As with any marriage, there are difficult moments — moments that cost us something of our independence or the sinfulness to which we sadly cling — but we have experienced that vast horizon of the other. The beauty of it points me onward, reminding me that the prize is worth the bumpy ride.
Sometimes the demands are not as simple as spinning my daughter about in the laundry basket. Sometimes, my "Yes" requires more in the way of self-mastery. How often have my own husband's legitimate wishes been met with joyless reluctance, hesitation or even worse, silence? Counting my husband and three children, my home boasts four sets of the softest brown eyes I have ever known. In these eyes, I have beauty enough to last me a lifetime.
One would think I would realize that the greater the costs, the more abundant the blessings. But I, yet a fearful pilgrim, am still caught up in counting costs more than blessings. I am comforted by the pope's reminder that the one-flesh union of marriage journeys the path of our lives "until the man and woman become one spirit as well." Speaking in his May 13 address, Benedict added that a our bodies teach us "the value of time, of that slow maturation in love." There is time for me yet.
The remedy for our fear of the other is written into our very bodies, which literally come from another and are proof of our membership in generations that trace back to a beginning. The body, in other words, has a home within the family.
"It is in the family," Benedict explained, "that the human person discovers that he or she is not in a relationship as an autonomous person, but as a child, spouse or parent, whose identity is founded in being called to love, to receive from others and to give him or herself to others." When we understand that these relationships are at the very core of our human identity, that they are as natural to us as breathing, we may correct our cultural myopia regarding the vocation of marriage.
Marriage is rooted in God's creation. Male and female are the only two "ways" of being human. By creating this sexual difference, God inscribed in the body a call to love. So it is that Pope Benedict proclaimed in his address to the John Paul II Institute that the virtue of chastity "is not a 'No' to the pleasures and joys of life, but a great 'Yes' to love as a profound communication between persons, a communication that requires time and respect as they journey together towards fullness and as a love that becomes capable of generating life and of generously welcoming the new life that is born."
During a recent visit to our house, a friend told me, "You know, when I do my progressive relaxation exercises, I always picture your home as my peaceful place." I looked around. Could we be seeing the same house — the piles of papers on the dining room table, the toy blocks and cars on the floor, the laundry baskets full of clothes? Her smile told me that there was something deeper than our mess that mattered to her.
I hope that our home is what my friend has called it — a place of peace and joy. If it is, it is only by the grace of Christ, whose majesty dwells so humbly with us. A home is a rooted place — a place rooted in a "Yes" — just as a marriage is. It is precisely this rootedness that frees my husband and I to welcome the souls that God sends us. The realities of home and marriage testify to the seeming paradox of "bound freedom."
Each of us, married or hoping to marry, must realize within ourselves the tendency toward perceiving the other as one from whom I must be defended. Each of us must also hold tight to the event of the Incarnation as both a model and a source of grace for married people. In the Incarnation, God stooped down, embraced and assumed our humanity, married himself to us, and never let go. Indeed, the body of Jesus Christ is in heaven to stay, his divine and human natures united for good. Marriage speaks of this: "Stay," it whispers, "for there is something here bigger than the both of you." The opening between the spouses becomes that opening toward God, who is the source of love and fruitfulness. Even suffering through a difficult marriage or perhaps simply a difficult time in marriage becomes an opening to God when united to the cross and resurrection of Christ, who flees not from our brokenness.
A Christian life entails our very own Way of the Cross. No less does the vocation of marriage demand sacrifice of us. After God, it must be prioritized over all other considerations, from children to employment. Our children will learn this truth as they learn most things — by watching. They need to see that mommy and daddy have a time just for themselves. They need to know that our love for them was born of our love for each other. When my 5-year-old took an unpleasant tone of voice with her father, I instinctively told her, "It hurts me when you talk to my husband that way." This gave her pause for reflection. Her father is not simply "daddy," but also has a spousal belonging.
I have personally witnessed that the little offering my husband and I make in being open to life becomes, in the hands of God, what Pope Benedict called "the new fruitfulness." Three little souls wake me up in the morning, and the beauty of their bright eyes brings the meaning of all history to me in concrete form. Beauty has a face.
To be sure, there is no live orchestra and applauding audience as I put in my time in the basement on diaper washing duty. Yet, this little act of incarnate love, too, will somehow be part of my redemption.
In the end, the vows of marriage will liberate, not enslave us. The faithful "forever" that marriage requires does not rest on our efforts alone, but on a grace that flows from the Cross and redeems us.
KATE IADIPAOLO writes from Covington, Ky., where she lives with her husband, Adam, and their three children. She is a 2003 graduate of the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family in Washington, D.C.